Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Ceding Power to the Legislature

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2016 – It’s been an unusually contentious 90-day Maryland General Assembly session. The Republican governor and Democratic legislature are pulling in starkly different directions.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has made it clear he’d just as soon do away with those pesky lawmakers and rule by executive fiat.Ceding Power to the Legislature

His propaganda pitch is simple: I’m immensely popular right now and that should be enough to sweep away all opposition to my policy proposals.

Hogan, the most powerful governor in America when it comes to budget-making, wants even more unfettered ability to do as he pleases in cutting mandated aid programs.

He mocked lawmakers repeatedly during the session, even comparing them to college-age pranksters at one point.

Scant Progress for Hogan

In most cases, he refused to let his underlings work with lawmakers behind the scenes to improve the final work product and reach a compromise.

He kept demanding total surrender by Democratic legislators on a host of conservative Republican initiatives.

No wonder Hogan made scant progress on his agenda. It was too ideological, too partisan and too in-your-face bad-mouthing.

Indeed, Hogan’s decision to play Lone Ranger politics rather than work cooperatively with Democrats in the General Assembly has set the stage for what could be a momentous power shift in the Annapolis State House.

Throughout Maryland’s history, legislatures have let the governor take the lead in setting the agenda for the state’s annual General Assembly session. Lawmakers followed the old adage – the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

But this time Hogan failed to lead. His 13-point initiative was long on Republican talking points featuring lots of tax cuts, fee cuts and tax credits for businesses as well as impossibly idealistic conservative goals such as wiping away state spending mandates and stripping the Democratic legislature of any power over the decennial redistricting process.

It’s no surprise Hogan met failure on the majority of these items.

Filling the Void

What did come as a surprise was legislative leaders’ determination to jump into the policy void created by Hogan.

Where was the comprehensive gubernatorial aid package for riot-torn Baltimore City –the most pressing problem confronting the state?

Where was the gubernatorial package of bills to improve the environment, public schools, state universities or health care?

On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.

Instead, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller became the initiators, setting their own achievement goals. For the most part, Hogan was left on the sidelines where he shouted nasty criticisms of the players but never offered to join them on the field.

Aggressive Legislators

The legislature’s Baltimore aid package, while far from ideal, offered the first tangible evidence of Democratic lawmakers imposing their will on the governor, not vice versa.

It could be the start of a more aggressive approach by legislative leaders, making demands on the governor or even requiring gubernatorial actions.

In the past, lawmakers were deferential and passive partners in the law-making process, giving the governor the primary role in formulating policy and pushing legislation to fruition.

That has started to change.

Over the next two legislative sessions, Hogan’s influence will wane as the 2018 elections draw near and political reelection becomes the driving force. Democratic lawmakers will be less willing to grant Republican Hogan what he wants if it involves partisan goals and initiatives, as seems likely.

His agenda could be put on the shelf as legislators fashion their own package of priority legislation and steer it through the House and Senate with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.

Who Will Be in Charge?

By the time Hogan finishes his first term, he may have created a legislative monster for future chief executives – a General Assembly more capable of replacing the governor as the initiator of major legislation. Their power could increase; his could diminish.

It is likely Hogan can continue to milk his popularity by belittling Democratic lawmakers, portraying himself as the victim of their misguided actions and positioning himself as the advocate of lower taxes and less intrusive government. It’s worked so far.

Yet at the same time, if the chasm between Hogan and legislative leaders widens the governor may not have much in the way of achievements to show voters. By 2018, a cynical public may not view him so positively.

A more powerful state legislature seems on the horizon, and that’s not good news for any governor – unless he is willing to collaborate and compromise. Hogan has shown a lack of interest in either.

The verdict on the governor is still out. He’s shown he can retain his popularity. But can Hogan get major legislation approved while taking a confrontational approach toward a more assertive General Assembly?

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Good Larry, Bad Larry

By Barry Rascovar

  March 14, 2016–From day to day, lawmakers in Annapolis don’t know what to expect from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.
  Will it be “Good Larry” who moderates his comments, works to find middle ground and comes out making everyone happy?
  Or will it be “Bad Larry” who uses heated political rhetoric; sounds false warnings of doom to energize his conservative base, and alienates the very legislators he needs to accomplish things?
Good Larry, Bad Larry

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, at press conference denouncing spending mandates.

   Perhaps someday Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. will learn how to govern and deal with Maryland’s co-equal branch, the General Assembly. So far, though, it hasn’t happened.
  Most of the time Hogan stays in partisan campaign mode, pretending he can have what he wants simply by reminding legislators of his popularity in polls.

Two to Tango

  Then he bumps up against the hard reality of American politics: Without support from the legislative branch, no state’s chief executive can make headway toward his goals.
  The “Good Larry/Bad Larry” dichotomy was on full display last week in the State House.
On Tuesday, “Bad Larry” went ballistic because Democratic lawmakers aren’t about to gift-wrap for him new budget powers so he can make deeper cuts in spending.
  Yet on Thursday, “Good Larry” mollified those same legislators by adding construction dollars for historically black colleges, by accelerating construction of a biomedical sciences building on the University System of Maryland’s Shady Grove campus, and by giving Baltimore City schools funds to partially offset falling student enrollment.
  It was a bravura Thursday performance after an embarrassing Tuesday display of staged anger.

Hogan’s Dilemma

  The Republican governor can’t decide whether he wants to govern or campaign.
  Governing requires that he be practical and pragmatic, compromising with Democrats so he can achieve partial victories.
  Campaigning requires that he abandon any chance of winning over lawmakers and instead launch a continuous barrage of verbal assaults on Democratic legislators in preparation for the 2018 elections – still two-and-a-half years away.
  Usually, Hogan has chosen to stay in campaign mode.

Distorting the Facts

  On Tuesday, he condemned Democrats for not taking seriously his bill to eliminate many of the spending mandates established by legislators over the years. Asking any legislature to cede budget power to the governor is a non-starter – unless the governor can provide some persuasive reasons.
  Hogan failed to do so.
  Instead, he blamed it on “eight years of financial mismanagement” under the prior (Democratic) governor and Maryland’s current “precarious fiscal situation” on the (Democratic-dominated) legislature.
  Neither statement is true.
  The state’s past fiscal woes stemmed mainly from the deep and long Great Recession. As for that “precarious fiscal situation,” it doesn’t exist at the moment – not when Hogan is sitting on a $300 million budget surplus and $1 billion in a “rainy day” account.

Powerful Governor

  It’s campaign hyperbole, as was the chart Hogan continually pointed to at his Wednesday press conference, the one claiming Democrats seek to impose on Marylanders $3.7 billion in spending mandates this session.
  Hogan already has more budget power than any other governor in the country. He doesn’t need extra authority to short-circuit spending mandates in troubled economic times.
  Why? Because he already can make drastic cuts in two different ways – with approval from the Board of Public Works, or with the cooperation of state lawmakers through a budget reconciliation bill.
  Thus, Hogan’s “mandates reform” is a bogus issue put forward mainly for partisan political purposes.

‘Power Grab’ or Transparency?

  The same is true of his earlier wailing over Democratic bills forcing Hogan to explain the rationale for building roads and bridges that appear to be low-priority items.
  Hogan claimed in almost hysterical terms how this was a “reckless power grab” and a “thinly veiled power grab.”
  It is neither.
  The package of bills doesn’t stop Hogan for doing whatever he wants in selecting the state’s transportation projects. The bills simply force him to explain why he’s picked road project F over road project A on the state’s priority list.
  Senate President Mike Miller clearly explained that these bills remove “the mystery of how, why and where roads get built.” The measures encourage government transparency while leaving intact the governor’s road-selection powers.
  What’s wrong with that?

Good Republicans, Evil Democrats

  Hogan and his second-floor Republican ideologues are good at promoting phantom crises they blame on Democrats. They’re applying national GOP tactics to Maryland: Make this a fight between good Republicans and evil Democrats and point an accusing finger at the party of evil.
  No wonder Hogan has won few legislative victories in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly. At the moment, it looks like he’s headed for a large basketful of defeats this session, too.
  That’s why Thursday’s supplemental budget from Hogan is so intriguing. The governor negotiated deals with Democrats on a host of issues and wound up getting praised by his opponents for working out win-win compromises.
  That victory could set the stage for more moments of Hogan playing the role of Great Conciliator as the General Assembly moves rapidly toward its conclusion.
  But he won’t get very far in that direction if he continues to alienate and infuriate key lawmakers with his “Good Larry/Bad Larry” routine.
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Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 29, 2016 – Mixing politics and education can be lethal. They are best kept far apart.

That’s why Maryland, for 100 years, has isolated the governor and state lawmakers from the process of choosing the State Superintendent of Schools.

Liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, though, sought to change that.Hogan Wins an Important Victory

They worry that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. might fill the State Board of Education with conservative-leaning members who would name a superintendent with a staunchly right-wing education agenda.

So they floated a bill giving the Senate in Annapolis veto power over the selection of a state schools leader.

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

Hogan’s office called it “complete and utter rubbish” and a malevolent attempt to politicize public education. He stood firm and the bill thankfully died.

Imagine 47 politicians with the ability to manipulate this appointment to serve their own partisan objectives.

Wherever politicians impose their will on educators, bad things can happen in the classroom.

Back in 1914, a study by Abraham Flexner, a noted American educator, concluded Maryland’s public schools were “infested with the vicissitudes of partisan politics.” Two years later, the governor and lawmakers built a dividing wall in which the appointed state board members would, on their own, choose a state school chief for a four-year term.

It’s been that way ever since – and it has worked exceedingly well.

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

When former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, he tried to fire Nancy Grasmick as state school superintendent for political reasons. He soon learned he didn’t have the power and that even his appointees to the state education board backed Grasmick.

O’Malley was thinking only as a politician, trying to oust a school chief beloved by his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, and by another O’Malley foe, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He ignored the fact that under Grasmick’s two-decade reign, Maryland consistently ranked at the top of state school systems offering an excellent public education.

Yet politicians’ urge to intervene and impose their ideological will on schooling remains strong.

Look at the situation in Baltimore City, a troubled city with a troubled school system.

Costly School Reforms

The last superintendent, Andres Alonzo, reenergized city schooling and turned much of the system on its head. But after he suddenly left, the city belatedly discovered Alonzo’s grand plans had been costly, leaving the new superintendent $105 million in the hole.

Indeed, the current city school boss, Gregory Thornton, was brought in largely to make difficult down-sizing choices, which pleased no one. He hasn’t won many fans among community and education activists or with the wannabe power brokers in Baltimore politics.

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

They are demanding that Thornton be canned. They insist he’s had 18 months to work a miracle and he still hasn’t done it.

Mayoral candidates are promising a takeover of city schools, placing education decisions firmly in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. That will fix everything, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

Decisions on education policies are best left to skilled, experienced education managers, overseen by a school board of non-partisan, concerned citizens dedicated to improving the learning environment for children.

Thornton is no neophyte, either, having had considerable success as school chief in Milwaukee in uplifting minority classroom performance and closing a big budget gap.

He may not have Alonzo’s charisma or the ability to appease the multitude of factions vying to control education decisions in Baltimore, but he’s made headway in the face of enormous urban challenges.

His problems could multiply in coming months unless the very same politicians seeking Thornton’s head find a way to persuade the governor to help city schools fend off a new $25 million budget hole caused by declining enrollment.

Hogan has budgeted funds to help three other counties facing that same predicament, but so far he’s shown no willingness to plug in extra money to deal with Baltimore’s far larger enrollment drop.

It was the governor’s adamant opposition to politicizing the state school superintendent’s appointment that forced legislators to abandon their power grab this year. That’s a huge victory for public school children in Maryland.

Following up with added funds to bolster education efforts in Baltimore would be icing on the cake.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is barascovar@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Hold Off on Internet Hotel Tax

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2016 – Vetoed bills are on the minds of all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly as they begin their annual 90-day session in Annapolis. Indeed, it’s the first order of business on Wednesday.

Among the most controversial is a vetoed bill concerning a dispute between large hotel operators, like Bethesda-based Marriott and Rockville-based Choice Hotels, and internet travel companies. The fight is over tax payments to the state by those internet companies when they book in-state hotel rooms.

The vote to override Hogan’s veto puts three “swing” Democrats with centrist records on the hot seat — Sen. Jim Mathias of the Eastern Shore and Sens. Kathy Klausmeier and Jim Brochin of Baltimore County.

All three Democrats come from districts where anger over high taxes led to large Hogan victories in 2014 with margins topping 60 percent for the Republican governor.

Now Democratic leaders want the three senators to go against Hogan on the internet hotel tax bill. For them, that may not be the wisest political move, especially on a piece of legislation viewed by many constituents as a tax increase.

Travelocity

The big hotel operators want travel companies to pay taxes on the fees they charge customers when travelers book Maryland hotel rooms through an intermediary. (The internet sites already add the state sales tax to the negotiated rate going to the hotels.)

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. vetoed this bill.

He did so for the most sensible of reasons: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot already is suing an internet company, Travelocity, over what he claims is $6 million in unpaid taxes on those service fees between 2003 and 2011.

Hogan’s Message

“The General Assembly should respect the long-standing practice of not passing legislation that would directly affect matters being litigated in a pending court case,” Hogan wrote in explaining his veto last May.

Why in the world would state lawmakers interfere in a court case brought by the state’s comptroller?

Why not do what nearly all prior General Assemblys have done and let legal proceedings play out before taking action?

The answer is partisan politics. Democratic leaders want to show Hogan who’s in charge by overturning the governor’s vetoes.

On this one, pragmatism and practicality should prompt lawmakers to let well enough alone until there is a definitive ruling from the Maryland Tax Court.

Hurting Ma and Pa

It’s a complicated issue. Legislative controversies usually are.

For instance, the hotel booking tax could hurt local Ma & Pa travel agents, who are having a hard time as a result of shrinking commissions from hotels and other destination sites.

The fees they charge customers are their profit margin. If those fees get taxed, it could mean staff reductions to make up the difference.

Besides, they already pay local and state income taxes on revenue derived from those fees.

The new sales tax also could have the unintended consequence of harming small businesses such as tour operators, event planners and service providers, who might be forced to pay a new tax.

Fewer Bookings?

Industry data indicates that for every percentage increase in hotel rates, there is a negative two percent drop in bookings. That could be huge in Maryland if the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto. It could easily wipe out the revenue gain, estimated at $3 million to $4 million, from taxing service fees on third-party hotel bookings at a rate of six percent.

Large hoteliers say this tax “levels the playing field.” Yet it also forces third-party booking agencies to hike their prices to consumers and thus become less competitive with the hotels’ in-house booking operations.

The biggest booster of the new tax is Marriott, which has enormous clout among legislators from Montgomery County.

Ironically, Marriott was a big beneficiary in 1999 of state tax breaks topping $58 million in exchange for keeping its headquarters in Maryland. Part of the deal called for Marriott to expand its HQ staff by 700. Instead, there’s been a major workforce reduction.

Think how much the state’s tax coffers would have benefitted if Marriott had followed through on its 1999 commitment.

Consumers Pay More

Those opposing this bill say this amounts to a new tax, which it definitely is for third-party hotel booking services. You can rest assured most of this tax increase would be passed along to customers booking lodging in Maryland through them.

As noted, this is not a cut and dried issue.

Should all services fees be subject to the state sales tax, or just fees charged by internet hotel booking companies? Should local travel agents and travel-related companies be exempt from the tax?

The legislature is acting prematurely. It should await a Tax Court decision. Then it should form a work group to study the full, wide-ranging implications, including the mixed responses to this problem in other states.

All that points to a go-slow approach.

When SB 190 comes before the Senate and House of Delegates on Wednesday, lawmakers should avoid a hasty decision. There’s no need to rush to judgment – unless bitter partisan politics overrules common sense.

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Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 14, 2015 – He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.

Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.

First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sat unused in the state treasury.)

He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.

Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.

In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.

It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.

Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.

But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.

Carroll’s Conundrum

Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.

Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.

The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.

But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.

A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.

Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.

Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?

Longer-range Perspective

Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?

Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.

At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?

A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.

Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.

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Emily’s Mistake?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 7, 2015 – What in the world was Emily’ List thinking when it threw $1 million into the Maryland Senate primary race for a candidate who could be an easy mark for Republicans next November?

Why would the women’s political empowerment group try to defeat a much stronger Democratic candidate who has an unblemished pro-choice record and strong support from elected female leaders in Maryland and women’s rights advocates?Emily's Mistake

It’s a baffling call, especially in an election season where a $1 million advertising blitz could make a huge difference in a number of pivotal general election Senate races around the country involving other Democratic, pro-choice, female candidates.

Emily’s List early on endorsed Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County for the Senate seat held by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after next year’s election.

Edwards is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who has a big lead in the most recent poll, the vast majority of endorsements from elected Democratic officials and a solid corps of female supporters, including the former national board chair of NARAL, a leading pro-choice advocacy group.

Million Dollar Blitz

Yet Emily’s List insisted not only on snubbing Van Hollen’s two decades of solid pro-choice support but then decided to become an issue in the Democratic primary race with its $1 million Edwards ad campaign.

It’s an independent expenditure committee ad campaign, which by law means Emily’s List cannot coordinate its activities with the Edwards camp. But the obvious similarities of Edwards’ campaign pitch and the Emily’s List ad is striking and raises concerns.

Even more troubling is Emily’s List’s attempt to target its ad to an African-American audience, with an obvious African-American narrator proclaiming Edwards will “work for us.”

If the same language had been used in support of a white candidate, there would be hell to pay – and rightly so.

What’s so odd about Emily’s List’s love affair with Edwards is that her victory in the April 26 Democratic primary would be a gift from heaven for Republicans.

While Edwards has a legitimate shot at winning on April 26, in the general election she might not be the favorite, even in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Wider Support

That’s not the case with Van Hollen, who enjoys far broader statewide support than Edwards.

Republicans are hoping for a repeat of Larry Hogan’s upset win in the governor’s race last year. He defeated Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lacked broad statewide support among Democrats, independents and elected officials.

If either of the two GOP front-runners, Del. Kathy Szeliga or Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is nominated, they could duplicate Hogan’s success if Edwards is the Senate opponent.

Both are good campaigners who want to come across as smiling, Hogan-esque figures.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a lightning rod for controversy. Her hard-edge political approach is far to the left of the Democratic center, she does not work well with her fellow politicians and she often has forgotten to tend to the services demanded by constituents.

In contrast, Van Hollen has spent two decades networking within Maryland’s political establishment. He’s popular with his colleagues and has worked relentlessly to pass meaningful legislation rather than showboat on behalf of liberal causes.

Choice Supporters

The ultimate irony is that Van Hollen and Edwards are on the same page when it comes to defending abortion rights. There’s no difference in their level of support.

That’s why Emily’s List’s $1 million worth of aid for Edwards is so puzzling.

It may not have much of an impact, though.

Far more valuable may be Van Hollen’s endorsement by a key labor union, SEIU, which redrew its prior support for Edwards in previous elections.

One SEIU official said Edwards had turned her back on the labor movement after SEIU helped get her elected in 2008.

Union Strength

SEIU brings considerable on-the-ground organizational muscle to Van Hollen’s campaign.

The labor union works hard to get out the vote for its endorsed candidates. Moreover, the core of SEIU’s 40,000 members live in areas of the state Edwards needs to win big-time: Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County.

That’s one reason SEIU’s endorsement of Van Hollen is so meaningful.

It’s surprising that Emily’s List didn’t look at the bigger picture, both in Maryland and nationally, before tossing $1 million into its Edwards advertising effort.

The group’s decision could turn out to be a very costly Pyrrhic victory.

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Hogan’s Curious Facebook Blasts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 2, 2015 – Like every politician these days, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has a Facebook page. His political organization, Change Maryland, is on Facebook, too. The comments on the two blogs often are identical.Hogan's Curious Facebook Blasts

Hogan’s Facebook blogs tend to be powder-puff, good-news summaries of visits and actions by the governor. That is par for the course.

It’s pretty much what his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, put out on his Facebook page – at least until O’Malley started planning his run for president. Then his Facebook musings turned heavily partisan and highly politicized.

That doesn’t work as well, though.

Social networking websites are ideal for promoting ideas and policies, of telling the world about your successes and new programs and ideas. It’s perfect for promoting all the good deeds and heart-warming things you do every day.

Facebook isn’t the best vehicle for expressing anger and hurling cheap shots at your enemies.

Facebook Stories

Hogan has endeared himself to his supporters and even to his political opponents by his courageous fight against cancer and his willingness to use his illness to promote cancer awareness and sympathy for others with this dangerous disease. He has used his Facebook page to tell those stories.

Most of the other blogs are revised versions of press releases on Hogan initiatives and Hogan speaking appearances around the state.

But occasionally, Hogan’s Facebook writer gets carried away and turns the governor’s remarks venomous and stridently partisan.

Last week, the governor’s online comments went too far. His staff writer lied.

“Today, a small band of out-of-touch legislators have convened a ‘hearing’ in Annapolis to complain about our closing of the {Baltimore City] jail,” Hogan wrote on his page. “[I]t seems a few professional politicians in Annapolis want to try somehow to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan should disavow his staff writer’s statements. He knows they aren’t true. His Facebook “friends” deserve an apology.

The Facts

Fact: There was a hearing in Annapolis on Hogan’s decision to close the City Jail. Such a “hearing” is routine. It’s what legislators all over the country do.

Fact: There was no “small band of out-of-touch legislators.” Indeed, no one at the hearing made any “out-of-touch” comments. It was a status-updating session.

Fact: No one at the hearing complained about the jail closure. Legislators wanted to know how the closure was proceeding. Some lawmakers praised the governor’s action.

Fact: Not a soul at the hearing tried “to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan’s Facebook remarks were made up out of whole cloth. The blog was written before the hearing even commenced. It was a trumped-up display of partisanship designed to make Hogan’s foes look like fools.

Instead, Hogan’s staff writer made the governor look like the fool by criticizing something that never happened.

Misleading Message

Then the governor’s minions compounded this error with another strange and intentionally misleading post.

It stated the legislature had held a “partisan” hearing to “question” Hogan’s jail closure. Wrong on both counts.

It was an impartial, fact-finding session where Hogan’s prisons chief received plaudits for a job well done.

Then Hogan’s post mocked the Baltimore Sun for daring to write in an editorial that Hogan had tried to politicize the hearing with his Facebook comments.

The Sun’s assessment, though, was on the mark.

The fact that Hogan’s Facebook staff writer didn’t like that his boss had been caught trying to turn a routine legislative hearing into a political ambush (which it was not) makes Hogan sound petty, parochial and a bit paranoid.

What Hogan’s minions did in his name on his Facebook page should embarrass the governor.

It gives ammunition to his enemies and needlessly antagonizes legislators he will need on his side when the General Assembly convenes in January.

In His Own Words

Even worse, these errant Facebook diatribes run contrary to Hogan’s own words.

Here’s what the governor wrote on his Change Maryland page and reproduced on his Facebook page on October 26:

“Too often we see wedge politics and petty rhetoric used to belittle our adversaries and inflame partisan divisions.

“It is only when the partisan shouting stops that we can hear each other’s voices and concerns.

“I am prepared to create an environment of trust and cooperation. . .”

“Wedge politics,” “petty rhetoric,” “belittle our adversaries,” inflaming “partisan divisions.” That describes Hogan’s Facebook blasts. There’s no hint of “trust and cooperation.”

What to Do

If Hogan is serious in what he wrote for Change Maryland, if he wants to bridge the political divide in Maryland and solve problems based on mutual respect, he’s got to clamp down on his Facebook staff writers, who seem eager to light fires, divide and exploit the politics of nastiness.

As governor, it is his obligation to follow his own written words and stop the partisan shouting.

Hogan has a choice: Stick to the facts and try to overcome Maryland’s political divisions through good will and honest dialogue, or snarl sarcastically at the opposition and fabricate events and intentions.

He can’t have it both ways.

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Hogan’s Unmistakable Popularity

By Barry Rascovar

October 19, 2015 – Make no mistake: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. is an anomaly in today’s “hate everything” society: He’s a popular public official.

Unmistakable Popularity

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Hogan tops out at 58 percent approval in a Goucher College poll and gets a 61 percent rating in the Washington Post poll.

Good for him.

He has carefully avoided most hot-button political issues and sought to minimize controversy during his initial year in office.

Sympathy for Hogan

Yet a substantial part of Hogan’s high ratings in a heavily Democratic state stems from his health problems – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Hogan has been transparent and open with Marylanders about his illness and has become a strong advocate for those with cancer.

His obvious courage and heartfelt effort to boost the spirits of his fellow cancer patients naturally won widespread applause from all corners.

At the same time, Hogan’s aides haven’t missed a beat in pulling on voters heartstrings and reminding everyone of Hogan’s arduous and courageous trips through chemotherapy treatment.

That skews the poll results. By how much we will never know.

Honeymoon Phase

Hogan most likely still would have polled well at this early stage in his administration without coming down with such a serious medical condition.

It’s interesting to compare Hogan’s numbers with Bob Ehrlich’s and Martin O’Malley’s at similar points in their administrations.

Ehrlich encountered huge, unexpected problems with the General Assembly in his first year in office yet managed approval ratings almost identical to Hogan’s.

O’Malley, faced with a huge deficit and joblessness caused by the Great Recession, took immediate and unpopular steps to right Maryland’s fiscal ship of state. That partly explains why his first-year approval rating came in at 52 percent.

But Hogan should take note: This pretty much was the high water mark for his predecessors in polls. The first year in office traditionally is viewed by citizens as a honeymoon period for the governor. He really hasn’t done much to stir anger in his initial months in Annapolis.

Hogan has followed that script closely.

Popular Moves

He’s made some moves he knew would be popular with most Marylanders – cutting highway and bridge tolls, killing an expensive subway project, closing a decrepit jail in Baltimore and coming to the aid of the mayor when rioting broke out in Charm City.

No wonder Hogan did so well in these polls.

But by this time next year, thing might be quite different.

Hogan’s team only now is getting a true handle on the inner workings of state agencies so it can cut spending and shrink the bureaucracy. They’re putting together next year’s budget, which could stun Democratic legislators with the size of cuts to some programs that matter deeply to lawmakers.

The governor also is likely to push hard for conservative initiatives, such heavily promoting charter schools, doing away with common core education standards, loosening business and environmental regulations and reducing the scope of some social services for the poor and near-poor.

Any of these steps could become flashpoints for loud, angry opposition – the sort of controversies that hurt a politician’s poll numbers.

So enjoy the high approval marks while you can, governor. The tough part of your job lies ahead.

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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

October 5, 2015 – Good intentions and wishful thinking will not get advocates of redistricting reform very far. They fail to grasp that the process is 100 percent political. The sweeping changes they seek won’t happen.

Reporters, editors and editorialists are strongly on the side of the reformers. So are political science academics and supporters of “good government.”

None of that matters one iota.

Ever heard of a homeowner relinquishing ownership of half his acreage so his neighbor can construct an obnoxious tennis court and swimming pool that increases the neighbor’s property value but decreases yours?

Ever heard of a politician putting his reelection in grave jeopardy by giving away his most loyal precincts?

Self-protection is a natural human response. Asking someone to place his or her career in harm’s way – especially a politician – is counter-intuitive.

Gerry’s Salamander

From the inception of political parties in this country, redistricting has been ruled by each major party’s burning desire to gain every conceivable advantage to win elections.

Thus in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) re-drew state senate districts to help his Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party. One of Gerry’s distorted Senate districts wrapped around Boston like a salamander.

At least that’s how the Boston Gazette depicted it in a now-famous cartoon, giving birth to the conjoined name, “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

Famous redistricting cartoon from 1812 turning Gerry’s new state Senate district into a salamander.

The scheme worked, keeping the state Senate in Democratic-Republican hands.

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

Rules laid out by the courts require equally populated districts after each Census and due regard for forming majority-minority districts when feasible. In each state, local courts and laws set out additional mandates for state legislative districts, such as respect for geographic boundaries and communities of interest.

But ever since the early 1800s, one thing has remained constant in the United States: the political imperative of the party in power to tilt redistricted lines heavily in their favor every ten years.

Each Party is Guilty

In Republican-dominated states like Texas, that means grossly distorted political boundaries that throw most elections to Republican candidates. In Democratic Maryland, it means the reverse.

Maryland Democrats used their dominance in Annapolis to re-draw congressional lines in some weird ways after the 2010 Census.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s current congressional districts. Rep. John Sarbanes’ gerrymandered district is the one shown in light green.

Republicans were packed heavily into one district dominated by the Eastern Shore and conservative parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Meanwhile in sparsely populated Western Maryland, dominant Republicans found themselves outnumbered in a new district that joined them to heavily Democratic and urbanized Montgomery County.

All the other congressional districts were tailor-made to keep Democratic incumbents in office. Not surprisingly, Democrats won seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats (although the margin in the Western Maryland-Montgomery district last time was razor-thin).

The same tactics were used by Democrats in Annapolis in re-drawing General Assembly districts.

Is Reform Possible?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has made a big deal about reforming the redistricting process. What he really wants to do is elect more Republicans and contort future redistricting maps in the GOP’s favor.

He’s got a redistricting commission holding hearings across Maryland, listening to disgruntled citizens and interest groups seeking a more equitable system. They’re also hearing from Republican outsiders who want to get inside the political tent.

The panel’s work is for naught.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly won’t listen to recommendations for an impartial redistricting process. There is no hope of changing their minds.

Hogan understands this reality, but he knows a good political theme when he sees one. He’s happy to campaign for “fair elections” and point to the prime example of horrendous redistricting – the bizarre congressional boundary lines Rep. John Sarbanes helped draw for himself.

Hogan has a winning campaign pitch with no effective push-back from the other side.

Still, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch aren’t about to commit political hari-kari to satisfy Republican Hogan and redistricting reformers.

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

There’s no getting around the fact that Maryland’s congressional districts are Exhibit A in what’s wrong with gerrymandering.

That could be overcome if Hogan drops the pretense that he can achieve a redistricting revolution and instead starts dealing realistically with the two Mikes.

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, why not see if there’s common ground for removing the most flagrant abuses of redistricting?

Why not agree on a panel of six representatives – two pragmatic Republicans and four pragmatic Democrats – with the goal of producing for the governor and legislative leaders new congressional lines that eliminate salamander-like boundaries, that keep districts as compact as possible and that don’t hopscotch all over the state?

The results might be the same – six or seven Democrats and one or two Republicans – because that’s roughly the breakdown of the two party’s voter-registration strength in Maryland.

Yet giving voters compact districts that no longer divide communities three or four ways would help immensely. People might actually know, when asked, who represents them in Congress.

A similar gubernatorial-legislative panel could help the competing parties draw more sensible state legislative district lines.

The idea should be to eliminate the worst aspects of redistricting. That’s doable. Eliminating gerrymandering entirely in Maryland is a non-starter.

2020 Census

In the next redistricting fight after the 2020 Census, Hogan (if he’s still in office) could create headaches for Democrats, especially if Republicans win enough General Assembly seats in 2018 to uphold Hogan’s veto threat.

But Democrats are not going to give away the farm. They won’t sacrifice their built-in advantages.

What we have now is sanctimonious comments from the governor on the need for redistricting reform and support from shiny-bright, good-government supporters and Republican hardliners looking for a way to do in Democrats.

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

How nice it would be if Hogan momentarily set aside his political predilections and Miller and Busch did the same. Then they might reach a common-sense compromise that straightens out – somewhat – Maryland’s gerrymandered districts.

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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Hogan’s Cancer Awareness

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 28, 2015 – We’re coming to the end of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has played a big role in both campaigns.

Hogan's Cancer Awareness

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

As most Marylanders are aware, Hogan was diagnosed with late stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma in June. That’s an extremely serious but treatable disease in most cases.

Since then, he has undergone a series of exhaustive hospital stays that included three small surgeries, three spinal taps and 25 chemotherapy sessions. He’s got one more round of these arduous chemo treatments next month.

The good news is that 95 percent of his cancer has disappeared. The treatments – painful, uncomfortable and in every way disagreeable – so far seem to be working.

Throughout this ordeal Hogan has been an exemplary advocate for bringing awareness to cancer treatments and keeping spirits high among adults and children with cancer. The more people know about cancers, the more likely they will be to keep themselves healthy and react promptly when they suspect health problems.

They won’t look upon it as a certain death sentence, either.

No Secrets

Hogan, as a public official, recognized early on that he has a special responsibility to be forthright with Marylanders about his situation.

Unlike public officials of the past, he never tried to keep his illness a secret.

Indeed, he has gone out of his way to let people know about his lymphoma and his hospitalizations at University of Maryland Medical Center.

During those five-day stays, Hogan has taken upon himself the role of cheerleader, especially for cancer patients in the pediatric ward at UMMC. Brightening the day of these kids and letting the public know the governor of Maryland is on their side helps the kids and their parents immensely.

They no longer feel alone or that important government official don’t care.

Hogan also has scheduled plenty of cancer awareness appearances since June, including one at Oriole Park with baseball stars Rick Dempsey and Jim Palmer and others with pediatric cancer patients at Redskins and Ravens football games. He not only shows up but broadcasts these promotional visits on his Facebook page to spread the word.

Papal Encounters

Hogan took his cancer advocacy to a totally different level last week in making a big deal about his encounters with Pope Francis, first at an event at Catholic Charities in Washington and then at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County.

He called his brief conversations with the pope “the experience of a lifetime.”

When Hogan, a Catholic, greeted the pontiff, he said, “Holy Father, may I ask that you please give a blessing to all those suffering from cancer around the world?”

What followed was dramatic to say the least. The pope placed his hands on Hogan’s head – bald from the chemo treatments – then traced the sign of the cross on his forehead and said, “God bless you.”

Hogan's Cancer Awareness

Pope Francis blesses Governor Hogan

At Andrews, Hogan and his wife, Yumi, stood in the receiving line as the pope boarded his customized jet, Shepherd One.

This time, according to the governor, Francis placed Hogan’s hands in his own and said, “I pray for you.”

This powerful episode will long be etched in Hogan’s memory. He took on the mission of representing all cancer victims before the pope rather than his own predicament.

Making Political Hay

There is clearly a political dimension to Hogan’s activities. That is unavoidable.

Hogan’s cancer diagnosis and treatment make him a sympathetic person even among Marylanders who strongly disagree with his actions as a conservative Republican governor.

Partisanship disappears, though, when people fall ill or experience personal misfortune.

There’s no doubt Hogan is benefiting from his Facebook page emphasis on cancer awareness and his own chemo treatments. His political aides have capitalized on this situation.

Yet other public officials might want to keep serious health conditions under wraps, to handle the chemo treatments, the unwelcome side effects and the personal problems that result as a private family matter.

Hogan isn’t giving the public a blow-by-blow account of this difficult journey he’s embarked upon. That’s only natural.

Still, he is being open, inclusive and transparent with Marylanders about his cancer. He is a role model for us in this regard.

It’s what true leadership is all about.

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